Dismal Voter Turnout Subject of Old State House Panel Discussion

Trinity’s Stefanie Chambers examines Obstacles faced by Women, Minorities

HARTFORD, CT, October 11, 2012 – With the presidential election less than a month away, a panel of three experts Wednesday tackled the thorny issues of low voter turnout, obstacles to voter participation, efforts to target and disenfranchise ethnic and racial groups, and other election-related topics.

The panel discussion, “The Fight to Vote, The Right to Vote,” took place at the Old State House in downtown Hartford and featured Stefanie Chambers, associate professor of political science at Trinity; Secretary of the State Denise Merrill; and Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause, Connecticut. The moderator was Elizabeth McGuire of the Connecticut Network (CT-N), which recorded the discussion and will broadcast it over the coming week.

Pictured left to right: Stefanie Chambers, associate professor of political science; Secretary of the State Denise Merrill; and Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause, Connecticut.

For a listing of airtimes, please visit: www.ct-n.com.

McGuire opened the discussion by noting that the number of people who turn out to vote could very well be a deciding factor in both the presidential election pitting Democrat Barack Obama against Republican Mitt Romney and Connecticut’s U.S. Senate race between Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon.

Calling it “hugely discouraging,” McGuire said, “we know that a huge number of people in this country just sit it out.” The nation’s dismal voter participation rate – especially when compared to other democracies -- dominated the hour-long conversation.

But first, Chambers gave an overview of the struggle by women for the right to vote, a fight that wasn’t won until the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920, more than a century after women had begun clamoring for enfranchisement. Indeed, the framers of the Constitution did not specify which groups were entitled to vote, resulting in various constituencies having to struggle “to get a place at the table.”

The suffragist movement gained momentum in the mid-1800s, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, who organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, where they issued a declaration calling for women to be granted property rights, equality in divorce proceedings and the right to vote, among other grievances.

But it would take another 70 years for women to gain the ability to vote. Chambers noted that Connecticut was not in the vanguard of the struggle for women’s rights. However, two of the women who were instrumental in advocating for women were Isabella Beecher Hooker and Katharine Houghton Hepburn, both from prominent white, well-to-do families, which was typical of the suffrage movement.

The Old State House discussion then veered in the direction of why so few eligible people over the age of 18 cast ballots, though interestingly, female voters have outnumbered men since the 1980s, a trend that continues to this day. In the past few decades, fewer than half of the eligible adults in this country have voted in presidential elections, and even fewer in off-year elections.

Merrill, whose job it is to oversee state elections, described it “as a crisis in this country. [Voting] is a right that people have fought and died for.” Merrill said the percentages vary according to several factors, including age. Seniors, for example, vote in much larger numbers than Americans between the ages of 18 to 30. “They feel like it’s optional,” Merrill said, alluding to young people. “If they feel like it, they vote,” whereas older Americans feel as though it’s their duty to vote.

All three women agreed that the United States makes it harder to vote than other democracies, some of which don’t require citizens to first register and some have elections on weekends or turn election day into a national holiday. The barrage of negative ads on American TV is also a big turn-off, as are the barriers that keep racial and ethnic minority groups from the polls.

Quickmire noted that there has been an escalation in the use of “voter suppression tactics” in many states, such as requiring voters to show government-issued photo IDs and sending voters text messages and robo-calls advising them that the day of the election or their polling place has changed. Quickmire described the tactics as “quite frightening” and said they result in people not showing up to vote or showing up at the wrong place.

In Connecticut, voters do not need photo IDs to cast a ballot, although they must show a form of identification with an address. Also, the legislature has enacted a law that will allow Election Day registration beginning in 2014, as well as online voter registration. In states that already have Election Day registration, it’s been shown that voter participation increases by an average of 10 to 12 percent. 

However, none of the panelists favored online voting because of the possibility of tampering and manipulation by unscrupulous people who want to alter the outcome of the election.